SpaceX Cheers Successful Starship IFT-4

SpaceX Cheers Successful Starship IFT-4

The fourth test flight of SpaceX’s enormous Starship/Super Heavy rocket appears to be a complete success. The Super Heavy booster made its first soft landing in the water and the Starship second stage flew three-quarters of the way around Earth, survived reentry, and made its own successful water landing. These are incremental steps towards full reusability of the system.

Integrated Flight Test-4 (IFT-4), also called Orbital Flight Test-4 (OFT-4), lifted off from SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, TX at 8:50 am ET (7:50 am local time).

The main goals included demonstrating that the first stage, Super Heavy or “the Booster,” could return to a controlled landing in the Gulf of Mexico after separating from the second stage, Starship or “the Ship.”  The combination of the first and second stages, standing 120 meters (394 feet) tall and 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter, is also called Starship.

Starship on the launch pad at Starbase in Boca Chica, TX prior to the second Integrated Flight Test, IFT-2, in November 2023. The silver section on the bottom is Super Heavy or “the Booster.” The top section, covered in black thermal protection tiles, is Starship or “the Ship.” The combination of both stages is also called Starship. Photo Credit: SpaceX.

Another goal was for the Ship to follow a suborbital trajectory over to the Indian Ocean, survive reentry through Earth’s atmosphere, make a flip maneuver and then fire three of its engines to make a controlled splashdown in the ocean northwest of Australia.

SpaceX provided live video through the beginning and end phases of the flight where coverage was possible with ground-based assets or Starlink satellites. Booster splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico was impressive.

SpaceX entertained viewers of the livestream on X with the Blue Danube waltz until video returned when the Ship was most of the way through its coast phase.

Video and commentary continued through almost all of reentry. As with IFT-3 in March, views of the exterior of the vehicle heating up during reentry were mesmerizing. Last time they lost control of the vehicle during descent, but this time it made it all the way down despite damage to at least one of the four flaps that was clearly visible from a camera mounted on the side.

Starship flap disintegrating from the forces of reentry on Integrated Flight Test-4 as seen from a camera on the vehicle. Screengrab. June 6, 2024.

Video was lost soon thereafter, but the vehicle survived all the way to an ocean landing according to a tweet from SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk.

The only wrinkle today was that one of the Booster’s 33 Raptor engines wasn’t firing as the rocket left the lanch pad.

One of the 33 methane/liquid oxygen (methalox) Raptor engines on the Super Heavy Booster was not firing as it ascended from the launch pad on IFT-4, June 6, 2024. Screengrab from SpaceX livestream.  The Starship upper stage has six Raptor engines of its own.

SpaceX stressed that the payload on this and the other test flights is the data they collect to advance their development of Starship. SpaceX has grand plans for the vehicle. In the near term they will use it to launch their own Starlink satellites into Earth orbit, but the long term goal is sending millions of people to live on Mars.

NASA has contracted with SpaceX to use Starship as the Human Landing System (HLS) for the first two Artemis missions to put NASA astronauts on the Moon, Artemis III and Artemis IV. Those are currently scheduled for September 2026 and September 2028.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted his congratulations to SpaceX after today’s flight.

SpaceX must conduct an uncrewed test landing on the Moon in advance. As powerful as Starship is, it cannot go directly to the Moon like NASA’s Space Launch System. Instead it must refuel in Earth orbit. Fuel depots do not yet exist in Earth orbit and transferring cryogenic fuels in microgravity has not been demonstrated, so there are many steps before that uncrewed test flight can take place, never mind human landings.

Today’s successful test flight is one of them, but there are concerns about whether Starship can meet NASA’s schedule. One of SpaceX’s other lunar customers, Yusaku Maezawa who purchased the first Starship flight around the Moon, just cancelled his Dear Moon mission because it was taking longer than he was willing to wait.

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